Louis Giscard d’Estaing: America from Father to Son

Along with a family likeness and a last name, Louis Giscard d’Estaing also inherited a passion for French-American relations from his father – former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who died last December. He has since nurtured and maintained this connection as a member of the French-American Foundation’s board of directors.
Louis Giscard d’Estaing. © Patrick Kovarik/AFP

France-Amérique: During his seven years as president, your father developed a special relationship between France and the United States. What stood out for you, and how are you contributing to it today?

Louis Giscard d’Estaing: My father’s approach was heavily based on French-American relations, which he developed extensively. To achieve this, he focused on two events in the history of our two countries: France’s contribution to American independence, and America’s participation in liberating France in 1945. I played a small role in the consolidation of this relationship. During the summer of 1976, I was invited to the White House by Gerald Ford. I was completing an internship in the United States as part of my studies, and I had a message to deliver to President Ford from the French president, my father. I had an envelope – although I was unaware of its contents – which I gave to him during our memorable meeting in the Oval Office. I then met his successor, Jimmy Carter, in 1978. I later helped develop this French-American relationship as vice-president, then president, of the Groupe d’Amitié France-Etats-Unis of the French National Assembly. In November 2007, I was part of the delegation accompanying Nicolas Sarkozy on his official visit to the United States. Lastly, I was the only French politician to have attended the Democratic National Convention in August 2008. This meeting saw Barack Obama nominated by the Democratic Party before being elected president. This investment in the relationship between France and the United States is a long-term effort. With this in mind, I am also on the board of directors for the French-American Foundation in Paris and the Cercle France-Amériques cultural association.

Louis Giscard d'Estaing in Paris, 1979. © François Lochon/Gamma-Rapho

When it was founded in 1976, the French-American Foundation fought against anti-Americanism among the French elite and against French bashing in the United States. Following Trump’s time in office, which saw heightened tensions between France and America, do you think there is anything left to fight for?

Absolutely. We have to overcome anything that stands in the way of French-American relations. During Trump’s presidency, the United States moved away from Europe and France. There is also anti-American sentiment still in France, although certainly less than at certain times when the French believed U.S. imperialism was a national threat. In the end, one of the paradoxes of our time is that the United States actually believes that Europe should fully assume its sovereignty by achieving autonomy and independent defense capabilities, removing any reliance on NATO and no longer sheltering under the American umbrella.

In Chamalières, a town in the Massif Central region where you are the mayor, Joe Biden’s victory was received particularly well. Could you tell us why?

This region is the birthplace of Lafayette, who was born in the Château de Chavagnac in the Haute-Loire département. My ancestor, Admiral d’Estaing, who also took part in the American War of Independence, owned estates in the Puy-de-Dôme département. There is a historic connection between the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region and American independence. This region is also the only one in France to be twinned with an American state – Pennsylvania – which played a key role in the recent Democratic victory. In a symbol of our friendship, in 2016 I received a reproduction of the Liberty Bell, an icon of the city of Philadelphia and American independence.

You personally met Joe Biden in April 2004. What do you remember from this encounter?

I have a very fond memory of our pleasant, friendly meeting. At the time, I was the vice-president of the Groupe d’Amitié France-Etats-Unis of the French National Assembly. During the tense period provoked by the French-American disagreement on involvement in the Iraq War, the French ambassador in Washington, Jean-David Levitte, had helped found the French Caucus in the U.S. Congress, which still exists today. I was part of the French delegation invited to the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Pentagon, and the State Department to participate in the creation of this partnership organization on a congressional level. We met Joe Biden in his office at the Senate as part of these discussions. At the time he was the Democrat minority leader and a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations during the George W. Bush administration. I met him once again in 2008 after attending his inauguration as Barack Obama’s future vice-president at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. His presidential victory therefore particularly resonated with me.

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing with Gerald Ford (right), U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (left), and General Secretary of the Elysée Claude Pierre-Brossolette, in 1975.

In 2013, you ran for office as the representative for French expatriates in North America. In a letter addressed to your fellow French citizens living abroad, you said: “America is, quite naturally, my second home.” What are your most striking memories of America?

My wife [who died in 2011] was American, which has helped forge special ties. My son, who was born in 1999, has dual citizenship. I worked in Washington, then in New York City, from 1984 to 1986 for the Moët-Hennessy French wines and spirits group, which is now a major brand managed by LVMH. In both my personal and professional lives, the United States has been my second home. This is why I have remained active in French-American relations, particularly as part of the French-American Foundation. I also want the Fondation Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, of which I have been the president since January following my father’s death, to highlight the importance of the initiatives rolled out during his seven-year presidency. After all, the 1974-1981 period was a substantial, important, and productive time in the history of the relationship between our two countries.

Your father once said: “The Americans know, or hope, that the United States will continue to be a model of democracy and, despite the current violence, of tolerance.” Have you inherited his optimism, and do you still believe in the American dream?

Yes, especially as his words were rather prophetic given the results of the 2020 presidential election. American public opinion has always been divided, as symbolized by the election of Donald Trump. But U.S. citizens used their votes last November to show that they wanted to continue upholding the concept of American democracy. And it is precisely this democracy that has prevailed in America despite everything, which is something that should inspire us all.